Notre Dame’s long-anticipated matchup with Clemson this evening lost some of its luster with the absence of star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. However, the Tigers still bring a #1 ranking into Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish have not fared well in these primetime, marque matchups in the past, but if there was ever a time for the Irish to pull the upset, it’s tonight.
This isn’t a must-win for Notre Dame, but it kind of is
Notre Dame can lose this game and still make it to the Playoffs. We’ve known for a while that Notre Dame and Clemson are likely going to play each other twice this season – tonight and in the ACC Championship game. So even if the Irish lose this evening, they’ll get another crack at Clemson in December – assuming they win the rest of their games.
That said, if Notre Dame isn’t able to beat a top 5 while playing at home against that team’s backup quarterback, when will they? And if they lose tonight, how much of a chance will they have a month from now against Trevor Lawrence and Clemson on a neutral field?
From the perspective of wanting to be seen as an elite program again, tonight really is a must-win. The national perception of Notre Dame will be that they simply aren’t in the same tier as the Clemsons and Ohio States of the world if they lose at home to a true freshman quarterback.
Notre Dame’s defense should be able to exploit DJ Uiagalelei better than Boston College
Speaking of that true freshman quarterback, I think Notre Dame will be able to exploit his inexperience much more than Boston College. And that’s not a dig at Boston College necessarily. Yes, Notre Dame’s defense is more talented – and I’ll pit Clark Lea against any defensive coordinator in the country – but from a timing perspective, Notre Dame is better situated than Boston College was.
Last week, the Eagles found out that Trevor Lawrence would not play against them on Thursday night. Practice for the week was over. Game plans were set. I’m sure BC altered their plans a bit at the last minute, but they didn’t have time to build their entire gameplan around not having to worry about Trevor Lawrence.
Clark Lea has known all week long that he doesn’t have to worry about facing Lawrence. Now, Uiagalelei is no slouch either, but he is still just a true freshman making his first start on the road. Expect Lea to try and fool the talented frosh. Brian Kelly said this week that they need to hit the quarterback – and they do – but watch for Lea to try and confuse him at the line just as much by showing blitz and backing off.
Clemson’s rushing offense has struggled
Part of why Notre Dame is set up to stop Uiagalelei is because the Clemson rushing offense has not been the juggernaut it once was. Just like Notre Dame’s ability to hit some chunk plays (more on this later) could determine the outcome for the Irish, Clemson’s ability to run the ball could determine it for the Tigers.
If Clemson and star running back Travis Etienne cannot get their ground game going, the Irish defense could take command of this game. That isn’t as far fetched as it sounds either. Etienne has just two 100+ yard efforts on the season. He had 102 on 17 carries in their season opener against Wake Forest, and he erupted for 149 on 17 carries in their blowout of Miami. Last week, with Lawrence out, he tallied just 82 yards on 20 carries. If he has that kind of game today, Notre Dame is celebrating into the morning.
Notre Dame’s lack of chunk plays could doom Irish
The big question for Notre Dame tonight isn’t on its defense. Everyone expects the Irish defense to come to play and to at the least hold Clemson in check enough to give the Irish a chance. The offense, on the other hand, is the big question. Can Notre Dame score enough points to pull off the upset is the question no one has an answer for.
I would feel so much better about Notre Dame’s chances IF Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy were suiting up for the Irish this evening. Without them, Notre Dame has lacked explosion in its passing game other than a quick outburst from Bennett Skowronek against Pitt.
Notre Dame will have to manufacture chunk plays tonight and play off of Clemson’s aggressiveness. We’ve seen Tommy Rees use more motion and misdirection in recent weeks. I expect some of that has been to set up a few plays tonight we’ve never seen. For instance, I fully expect either Avery Davis to attempt a pass or, at the very least, run a fake reverse that looks like it’s being set up for a pass.
Will razzle-dazzle work against Clemson’s defense? Most likely not without flawless execution and excellent play design. Brent Venables is too good of a defensive coordinator for his unit to be fooled too easily. Rees, despite his youth, has been building towards this game, though.
This game will define Ian Book’s Notre Dame career
Fair or not, tonight will likely define Ian Book’s Notre Dame career. He’s been a polarizing figure at Notre Dame. One camp agrees with Brian Kelly that he “just wins.” The other camp says that Book’s limitations have placed a ceiling on this offense and this team for the last two years. Book has an opportunity to silence the latter camp.
Book has had three opportunities in the last two seasons to silence critics but has come up short in each. He struggled against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl in 2018. He was OK against Georgia in Athens last year but couldn’t come up with the game-winning drive when given the opportunity. He had the worst game of his career last October in Ann Arbor.
For the first time, Book gets a chance in one of these marquee games on his home turf. The closest thing to a big game he’s had in Notre Dame Stadium was Stanford in 2018, but that Cardinal team proved not to be very good.
Notre Dame doesn’t need to rush for 200+ to win.
Notre Dame doesn’t have to have gaudy rushing stats as they did against Florida State or Duke to win this game. Brent Venables defense won’t allow for it. They don’t have to to win this game, though. What Notre Dame has to do to win the game tonight is to be efficient in its running game to give the offense a chance.
The most significant difference in the rushing game for tonight versus, say the Georgia game in 2017 or 2019 or even the Cotton Bowl is that Kyren Williams is a much more patient and efficient runner than Josh Adams or Dexter Williams. Kyren is not the same kind of home run threat as either of his predecessors, but at the same time, his rushing style is much more suited for success against a defense like Clemson.
Adams and Dexter Williams were more of single cut and take off type backs, and against a defense like Clemson, there aren’t many gaping holes to exploit. That’s why defenses like Clemson or Georiga have stuffed the Irish rushing game in recent years. Kyren Williams is different, though. He is so good because he turns a two-yard gain for most backs into a four or five-yard gain consistently. Yeah, that’s not sexy for the stat sheet, but against a defense like Clemson, the Irish need to play a little bit of small back to manufacture points. Williams will give them that chance tonight.
Notre Dame needs its star to be stars tonight
For the Irish to win tonight, they need their star players to play like it.
- Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah needs to bring down Etienne in the backfield a few times.
- Kyle Hamilton needs to pick off Uiagalelei to get his first INT of the season.
- Michael Mayer needs to come up with a few tough third-down conversions.
- Kyren Williams needs to consistently maximize his runs tonight.
- Notre Dame’s offensive line needs to play to their potential.
The last time Notre Dame had an elite opponent in Notre Dame Stadium was Georgia in 2017, and for as good as Mike McGlinchey was that year – and that night for the most part – he’ll forever be remembered for missing the block that led to the game-sealing strip-sack for Georgia. Notre Dame’s stars can’t have a gaffe like that tonight and expect to win.
I went back and forth on this one all week but have settled in with some newly found confidence in the Irish. All season long, I felt Clemson would come to Notre Dame, and it would just be more of the same in a big game for Notre Dame. Without Lawrence, though, if not now, when?
I think Notre Dame will run the ball well enough tonight. I think the Irish defense will contain Clemson well enough as well. If both of those happen, it could be a boring game in much the same way the 2017 Notre Dame – Georgia game was. If it’s low scoring like that, Notre Dame has a chance.
Notre Dame 24, Clemson 20